Monday, February 11, 2013

Cliffhangers: leave them wanting...



I love a good cliffhanger. Even when they're cheesy and overdone and at the end of every chapter (cough Da Vinci Code cough), they are ridiculously effective. And when they're done beautifully and consistently and you don't even realize it's happening to you until you're in the middle of the next chapter (cough Leviathan series cough), it's even better.

Cliffhangers are sooo good when they're done right, but I've found there are just as many ways to go wrong with them. Cheesy intros, false cliffhangers, killing tension - you worked too hard to shoot your cliffhanger in the foot. So my humble thoughts on how to do cliffhangers right (by telling you what you're doing wrong, YOU'RE WELCOME):

1) Switching POV at the beginning of the next chapter
WHY I HATE IT: Because it kills the tension for me. If I have to spend an entire chapter reading about someone else, by the time I get back to the character on the cliff I've forgotten that they've been hanging there all along, and you've lost the hard work you've put into building the tension in the first place.
HOW TO FIX IT: If you want to shift POV, shift to a character that's related to the secret but has different information than the last character. That way, the reader gets a different perspective on the secret and the tension is even BIGGER while we wait for the secret to explode

2) Overblown drama that gets resolved in the first paragraph of the next chapter
WHY I HATE IT: Because you tricked me as a reader. False cliffhangers are easy to spot from a mile away, and if you do it enough I won't trust you as the writer. And if I don't trust you, I've lost investment in your story. And your cliffhangers lose their power, catch-22 style.
HOW TO FIX IT: Don't be scared to follow a character over the cliff, or let them hang there for a bit. Readers like to be kept in tension, it's what drives them through the rest of the story. Most of the time when I see false cliffhangers, it's because the author was too afraid to find out what would happen if Roberta really DID steal Michael's baby (say wha?).

3) Making every last line of every single chapter a cliffhanger (ahem DAN BROWN ahem)
WHY I HATE IT: Because it is cheesy, and it's lazy writing.
HOW TO FIX IT: Work harder. Sorry, I know that's the lazy answer, but it's also the right one. Cliffhangers don't have to be looming shadows that fall over our beloved protagonists right as they discovered the buried treasure. They need to be smart, and subtle, and woven naturally into the narrative of the story (easy pease, right?). They need to be secrets the readers know but the characters don't put into jeopardy, because we just can't help reading on to find out what happens.

4) Holding your cliffhangers until the end of the story
WHY I HATE IT: Because it makes the rest of the story boring.
HOW TO FIX IT:  Subplots with climaxes throughout the story. Yes, the final climax scenes should be climactic, but that doesn't mean you can't have little climaxes through the rest of the story (that's what she said). Your story should rise and fall like a living thing, raising tension and releasing it and then ratcheting it higher so that by the time we get to the climax it's four in the morning and we're hungry and a little thirsty and maybe have to go to the bathroom but we can't even put the book down long enough to lift the toilet seat because we're all strung out on your plot lines.

5) Cliffhangers with obvious resolutions
WHY I HATE IT: Because there's no tension in the obvious. Also see nit #2 above.
HOW TO FIX IT: Don't go for the obvious cliffhangers. Don't put your MC in mortal danger, because no one actually believes you're going to kill them (although I would like to see that done). Instead, go for almost mortal danger. Cars veering crazily toward them, ipecac syrup in the punch bowl, a little sister with some Crayola scissors and a love of hair styling, etc. Give me something that won't kill them, but will put them in a world of pain (literal or emotional), and I just might believe you'll do it. Chapter NEXT, please.

So how about you? What do you hate about cliffhangers out in the real world (aka fiction)? What have you seen done well? Which cliffhanger books have kept you from your sweet slumber?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What's on a wall? A study in character

While planning my latest WIP I ran into an interesting wall (no pun intended) (but it worked out nicely) while developing my MC. She is a 16 year old girl in a futuristic setting, and the opening scene takes place in her room. My initial reaction was to skip over what her room looked like, because that wasn't really important to driving the story forward (or so I thought). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn't move forward until I actually knew what her room looked like. Why, you ask?

A little back story: I tend to either trudge through scenery descriptions or dispense with them all together in first drafts, because I personally hate writing scenery. I hate reading it and I hate writing it. When I read I tend to skim over the descriptions as soon as I figure out the bare bones of it - they're in a house, they're in a desert, they're in a robot prison shaped like an egg, etc.. I tend to write the same way, giving skeletal descriptions or only describing what I think is important to the story later.

So describing my character's room? Not high on my list of fun things to do in a first draft. But as I pondered the question of what would be on her wall, I realized that I wasn't just talking about Backstreet Boys of the Future posters or pictures of friends or some cool futuristic device. I was talking about her character.

Because what we put on our walls - how we decorate our homes, what color palettes we choose, whether we hang paintings or pictures - defines us as people. It was like an episode of Room Raiders on MTV, where people would go into someone's room and go through their stuff and try to determine their personality. (At least, I'm pretty sure that's how that show went.) The contents of a bedroom can sometimes tell you more about the person than they way they look or dress or talk.

I find the concept to be especially important in teenagers, since their room is typically their sanctuary. As we grow older and start owning things like cars and houses and garages, the concept of our own little corner of the world gets a little skewed. But for a kid, that room/tree house/crawlspace under the stairs IS their universe. And defining what that universe looks like defines who they are inside, regardless of what they show the rest of the world.

And for me, answering what was on her walls gave me the central plot point of the story. It told me who she was, what she wanted, and what she would do to get there. It grounded the character for me, and oddly enough I didn't struggle with her personality for the rest of the WIP. All I had to do was remember that room, and I knew what she would do.

Do you typically envision your MC's room? How does it impact your story? Have you ever surprised yourself after figuring out their little piece of the world?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

September, what are YOU doing here?!?

Just a brief check-in with all my bloggy friends to say hallow, and confirm (yet again) that I've not bitten the big one (yet) (again).

I've been hard at work on edits on my current WIP after running it through the ringer with my critique group, and as of this week I've shipped it off to some gracious beta readers who will tell my what my eyes are too tired to see: what's actually wrong with it. I'm looking forward to it, the way a marathoner looks forward to the walk to the car after a run. Which is to say: yeesh.

Editing for me is a slippery slope. I often complain about clients in my day job changing their mind about how a product should look because they've been allowed to sit with it too long. Which is exactly what I do when I edit a manuscript. I've been left with it for so long that I'm SURE that scene is no longer powerful, and I just KNOW this subplot will be so much better if everyone wears purple. And oh, ha ha, let's just change the name of half the characters because Larry is a stupid name (which, in my defense, it was for that character).

So eventually I had to pump the brakes on myself and take a step back to hand it over to betas. Is it perfect yet? For sure not. But do I know where it's not perfect anymore? For SURE for sure not. I can't be trusted with that red pen, friends. Tis a far nobler thing I do, making my betas read it, than I've ever done before.

So I sent it off to betas, and now I'm decompressing my brain with some good old fashioned reading. I'd forgotten a little bit how to read without the backspace button, and it's surprisingly enjoyable. I'm reading for my book club, catching up on books I bought last year and forgot were in my e-reader, and reading books in the same genre as the next WIP I want to write. It's like finding the sun after being trapped in a mine for six months or so.

I'm big on the similes and metaphors today, apparently.

I'm easing back into a manuscript I started several months ago and sidelined as I worked on revisions for the current WIP, but so far I'm giving myself permission to go slow. I don't have to write every day, and I don't have to pump out 2,000 words every time I sit down.


I'm not good at the patience thing.

What are you up to? Are you sad the summer is over, or glad the heat is (almost) gone? How are your manuscripts doing?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What does it mean to be a geek girl?

I'm going a little off topic today (which would imply I'm ever ON topic, which I'm not).

I read an interesting article on CNN (see the article here) about "booth babes" and their negative impact (according to the author) on the growth of the nerd culture. Basically the author's argument is that these model-type women who couldn't hack it in the real world have infiltrated the geek world to boost their own egos. They have no real interest in gaming or comics or cosplay, they just want to dress up in skimpy outfits and show up at conventions and be fawned over by men they wouldn't give the time of day to in the outside world. According to the author, they give true girl geeks a bad name, and set back their cause in geek culture.

On one hand, I agree with the author. I appreciate someone FINALLY calling out Olivia Munn, because I for sure don't think she's actually interested in anything nerdy. In fact, she's done a good job spinning her "geek girl" celebrity into other acting ventures and distanced herself from her original persona. Do I think she was ever a real nerd? No. And I'm not a fan of anyone leveraging a pretend interest in something just to get their foot in the door.

But what really struck me about the article were the comments. Good gosh are they horrible. Everything from people saying "it's fine if you use them, since they're just using you, just make sure they don't poke holes in the condom" to "geeks don't care what girls are into as long as they're hot and wear skimpy outfits." I have no idea who these people are, if they're just trolls looking to tear down the internet a little more, but it's horribly indicative of a disrespectful and potentially violent mindset. These kinds of comments aren't just opinions, they're pre-excuses for bad behavior. And coming from the "geek community," they're particularly appalling. This isn't a traditionally aggressive community (aside from all the primeval online slaughter).

I confess myself more than a little out of touch with this community. When I was a kid, a "geek" was anyone who preferred reading over the jungle gym at recess and was really good at math. Since then the definition has expanded into the digital world, and I'm afraid I've lost my street cred as a geek because I like reading and don't play video games. If there were tiers of nerdery, I'm probably toward the bottom rung.

Still, as someone with lingering nerd fantasies of mythical worlds and magical powers, I find these comments disturbing. And I find the idea disappointing that women have to battle again for their identity and their right to be part of a culture. I really think it messes with girls' heads to be told "be hot, but not too hot, and you only really belong if you meet standards we set for you." That's the surprising message I get after reading this article and the comments, and it makes me sad. We spend so much time deciding what other people should be, and we end up excluding or judging others for what reason? To claim true geekery?

For myself, I think I'm old enough and don't care about opinions not my own enough to say I am a nerd, and a geek if I feel like it. And the way I dress, or the ways I choose to define my nerdery, are not up to anyone else's opinion but my own.

Do you consider yourself a geek or a nerd? What defines the term for you? How do you feel about "booth babes" and their impact on geek culture?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Using your query letter and synopsis to identify plot holes

I'm in the process of editing/fixing/crying over/rewriting/preparing my latest WIP for querying agents. I learned a lot about the process and my own blindspots last year when querying The Librarian (including my own horrible titling skills). I'm honestly a little gun-shy this time around, which I think is a healthy thing. It's forced me to look at my work, really really look at it, because I don't want to screw up my one(ish) chance with this WIP because I didn't put in the due diligence. It was definitely my shortcoming last time around, and I prefer not to Napoleon my mistakes (i.e. repeat them).

One of the warning signs I didn't pay attention to last time that's screaming in my face this go round is the query letter/synopsis red flag. What's that, you ask? Well, gentle reader, let me tell you. It's the flag that gets raised in your head like a sopapilla flag in a Mexican restaurant (I might be hungry) when you're writing out that query and you can't figure out why something is happening. Or what drives the characters on to the decisions they make. Or what the inciting incident is in your story.

You know, things like that.

It's not so bad as all that, I promise. Well, sometimes it is. If I'd paid attention to the niggling thought in my head when I wrote the synopsis last year, I would have heard "Boy that sounds like a lot of subplots. Are you sure about all of those? And what is the MC's motivation? Why does she keep fighting what has happened to her?" But I didn't pay attention, and here we are.

The great thing about the query letter and the synopsis as editing tools is they quickly identify major story issues because you're consolidating down to the most essential elements of the book. It's easy to pretend like a subplot is super necessary because it's hilarious and you had fun writing it in 100,000 words, but it's hard to pretend the same when you've got 1,000 words to say the same thing.

Writing out my synopsis yesterday, I finally had to face that vague feeling I'd pushed away during all my last rounds of editing: that my beginning still wasn't working. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't solid. It was good enough for me to convince myself that I didn't need to change it again, but trying to summarize it in two paragraphs and make it sound interesting blew the problem wide open.

I threw myself a little pity party for about thirty minutes, but then the most amazing thing happened. I thought of a better beginning. Similar elements to my existing beginning, but now that I had the whole story in front of me I could see the threads that I needed to weave in the beginning to make the whole story work. And after I'd hammered out what should happen in a mini-synopsis, this great weight lifted off my shoulders. Because it finally made sense. I still have the hard work of actually writing it ahead of me, but at least I know where I'm going now, and I know why. I'm not ashamed of that synopsis, and my query just got a whole lot more compelling.

Use your query/synopsis to identify just a few of these potential problems:

  • Unnecessary subplots, or subplots that actually detract from the main story
  • Missing character motivations
  • Sagging beginnings, middles, or endings (because if you get bored writing the synopsis, imagine how your reader will feel slogging through 50,000 words of it)
  • Dropped story threads throughout the book
  • Fluff chapters (because if you can skip them entirely, they probably don't matter to the plot)
Have you ever used your query or synopsis to identify further issues in your story? What issues have you found in your own story after writing the query/synopsis?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Knowing which manuscript to follow (not so easy)

I've had a lot of trouble lately staying focused on one particular story. I finished a WIP back in January and started on heavy-duty edits, the first round of which I finished up about a week ago (huzzah!). I've got a few more rounds of edits to go before it's ready to start querying, but I'm in that lull where I should be working on something new.

It's not that I'm not writing, because I am. I've been pretty consistent about writing 3-4 days a week for at least an hour, which comes out to 8,000 words a week. Not bad from consistency's sake. The problem is, I've started/stopped/started four different stories in the last six months. Stats below:

- 30K words on the first manuscript
- 15K words on the second manuscript
- 10K words on the third manuscript
- 2K words on the fourth manuscript (started this past weekend on a whim)

See, I've got the pretty decent makings of a full manuscript if all of those words were on the same story, but my brain keeps bouncing around. I don't know if I should just let myself go incrementally on each story and have several finish around the same time, or force my attention onto one until it's complete. Usually I move to a different story because I've stalled on a plot line, or I'm still trying to solve a big BUT WHY?!, or I've lost interest in the characters. In my previous experience, I've found that once I lose interest in something and keep trying to slog through the story, my readers will suffer as much as I did.

This weekend I went back to the first manuscript and read through it just for fun (because why not?), and discovered that it wasn't nearly as terrible or boring as I thought it was. In fact, by the time I reached the end of what I'd written I wanted to keep going on the story, like I'd been reading someone else's work and got jazzed up about it enough to continue the story. So maybe I'm being too hard on myself, trying to force something new and linear out of myself every day. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and maybe (just maybe) worth the detour every once in a while.

How do you start new manuscripts? Do you stick to one story at a time or jump around? Do you ever pick up abandoned manuscripts and keep going at a later date?

Monday, June 25, 2012

And this is why I don't tell family I write

I recently spent some time with extended family, and the topic of "what I was up to" came up, as it does with us young-ish folk. Since the partner-in-crime and I are not making little criminal babies, people naturally assume something horrible has gone wrong in our relationship. At which point I explain no, we're just busy doing other stuff we want to do first. For me, that includes pursuing writing. Which, as soon as I say it, opens the door to questions/comments like:

- Oh, that's a nice hobby, I like to knit.
- What are you writing about? Can I read it?
- Hurry up and get published already!
- What is YA?
- What does your husband think about this? (honestly got that question)
- I've got an idea for a children's book about a penguin that flies in space.
- Oh, you should give the book to Aunt Jemima/Uncle Herbert/your cousin LooptyLoo, they would be a good person to read it and tell you if it's good or not.

I think we've all suffered some form of these kinds of inquiries, because non-writer types really don't understand what it's like. They don't understand that it's a profession, they don't understand that we're serious about it, and they really REALLY don't understand how the industry works. When I told someone recently that it could take up to two years to get a book published AFTER you got a signed contract, I had to get a forklift to pick his jaw up off the floor. It's such a different model from any other business that most people are familiar with, and they don't understand how it works.

Not that people don't mean well, because they do. They want us to succeed, they want us to be happy, they want to see our name in lights (or maybe that's just me). But I spend more time patiently (or not so patiently) explaining that no, you don't just submit to publishers and yes, you do have to do significant editing before you even send out a query letter. And yes, there's a thing called a query letter, and yes, it's the bane of my existence.

But all of this to say, spending time with people who don't get it makes the people who do get it all the more special to me. Having my time with my critique group, my writer friends, and my blogger friends keeps me sane, because we all need to find a corner of the world that understands us and our dreams. I'll save telling my family I write for when I can just hand them a book and answer all their questions :).

What one question/comment do you get the most? Which do you hope you never hear again?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My bone to pick: the "worthless" protag

I've noticed a trend in YA of the "never good at anything" protagonist. And when I say trend, I mean it's in like every book I've ever read in YA. Well, maybe not EVERY book, but it's pretty damn prevalent. To the point that I roll my eyes when I read book descriptions that say something like "Swiggy Figglebottom wasn't very good at math/sports/ladies/basketweaving, but when a mysterious blue haired stranger showed up on his door and informed him he was the lost prince of Swiggy's Swag Palace, he found an awesome power that made him superly awesome and awesomely super."

And look, I get it. Kids want to be empowered, and most kids think of themselves as ordinary or no good at sports or whatever, and this is their escapism to be something great and amazing. It's inspirational and uplifting, and for some kids (like little JEM back in the day) it is a way to cope with the less than satisfying world around them. I'm definitely guilty of the same tropes in my own writing, and have crafted more than one story where some weird little forlorn girl in a seaside town is discovered as princess of the universe. So I realize the hypocrisy.

But what annoys me about this trend and the concept behind it is that it reinforces that someone really can be "worthless." That because you're not the star basketball player or head cheerleader or editor of the newspaper, you're nobody. That what you do, or what you're good at, is what defines your worth. Not who you are or how interesting you can be or how awesome your knowledge of trains is, but what you can demonstrate. And that's just not true. In fact, the most fascinating people in my life are not the ones who can jump the highest or fly planes (fine, ONE GIRL flies planes), but the ones who can keep me engaged in an interesting conversation. And it was the same in high school. I didn't collect my friends based on what they could do, I collected them based on how interesting I found them to be. Sometimes that translates into awesome skill sets, but sometimes it translates into perfectly ordinary skill sets. Luck of the draw.

My point here is that I'd like to see the genre move away from the Swiggy Figglebottoms into more complex characters. It's an easy out to write the characters who were terrible at everything until they drank the magic potion. I want characters who come from all walks of life, and who are interesting even if they can't shoot hoops or don't live in the rich neighborhoods. And sure, they can have a chip on their shoulder about it, but I don't want their lack to be what defines them.

I read a great piece of advice once (maybe Maggie Stiefvater?) about your characters: they shouldn't necessarily be who we are, they should be who we want to be. A kid who doesn't live on the right side of the tracks but can still hold his own with the rich kids without being a douche about it? I like him way more than Swiggy Figglebottom, and that's a character I would want to watch over 400 pages.

How do you feel about the "no good at anything" protag? Do you like this concept or are you fed up with it like me? What kinds of characters do you like to follow in the books you read?

Monday, May 21, 2012

How do you capture ideas?

I think any creative type knows the drill: you're walking out to your car and inspiration hits. Or you're just about to hop in the shower when that scene you've been agonizing over finally crystallizes. Or worse yet, you're deep in revisions (dreaded, dreaded revisions) and a shiny new idea smacks you upside the head.

What do you do? Follow the rabbit down the hole and potentially write the next Hunger Games? Push the thought aside and focus on the task at hand and maybe lose your brilliant idea? Sit on the idea until it becomes something worth pursuing as it foments in the back of your mind? Or scribble it down and shove it in a file somewhere to come back to later?

Inspiration is a funny thing for me. When I first started writing, I would chase down every idea by writing it out until I couldn't think anything up anymore. What this translated to as a young writer (like, 10) was that I never finished anything. ANYTHING. In fact, the very first time I finished an entire manuscript, I was shocked that I'd actually finished something. Chasing down every idea left me scatterbrained and half finished, and that wasn't going to drive anything forward. I also never had time to practice craft because I was spending all of my time in that first feverish state of writing when you're willing to stay up until four in the morning just to capture a whisper in your mind.

So then for a while, I made myself focus. If an interesting scene or premise popped into my head while I was working on something, I set it aside and didn't follow up on it. My thought was if it was interesting enough to pursue in the future, it would stick around long enough to be told. I had the same approach to songwriting (back when I wrote songs); if a melody was good enough to be remembered, I would remember it without recording it. So of course, this meant I lost tons of ideas. Sometimes I'd have the perfect dialog exchange with myself in the car on the way home, and by the time I got around to writing it I couldn't remember half of what I'd said. So what I ended up with on the page was wooden and boring, a shadow of it's car self.

Which brings me to my current approach to capturing ideas. It's a flawed system, I'll admit that up front, and the hyper-efficient organization freak inside me wants a real system, but so far it's been a good blending of my two prior approaches. When inspirations strikes, whether I'm at the grocery store or sitting in front of my computer at work, I sit on it. I spin out the web of the story and look for ways that I could craft it into a full-fledged story (and not just a vague idea). If I hit a wall immediately, I know the idea was just that - a passing fancy in the wind. And I don't record it, because if I'm not even interested in following it down the rabbit hole for five minutes, I sure as hell won't be able to write and edit an entire manuscript about it. But if I can follow it for more than five or ten minutes, I'll open a new Word Doc (or Google Doc, depending), and write down everything I can think of.

This file is usually a mess of bullet pointed ideas, short snippets of scenes, character and location listings and their descriptions, and links to initial research if I need it (I'm into period pieces). I don't restrict myself on what I write, so long as I capture everything I thought of in conjunction with the idea. This helps me later on if I do eventually return to the story idea, because it's usually the cute/clever little details that I forget when I sit down later. Or, I solve my problem from the beginning and forget what I decided I would do.

And if I'm in the middle of something else, that's where the brainstorm ends. I don't let myself get sidetracked, I don't start writing from the beginning (I'm a very linear thinker and writer), I just capture the storm of ideas and then save them later for safe keeping. And if they're interesting enough to write about, I can't stop thinking about them until I have to go back. If they're not, I haven't wasted 50,000 words talking about them.

So how do you capture ideas? Where does inspiration strike you? Do you have a methodology that's more organized than mine (PLEASE share if you do)?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Confession time

1) I have so many great blog post ideas rattling around my brain, but I don't have the time/brain space to dedicate to them. And so they sit in half-drafted form in my unpublished folder.

2) I don't understand fruit on the bottom yogurt. Why am I paying to mix my own yogurt? You mix it for me, I give you money, this is the transaction. I feel the same way about salads in restaurants, which is why I almost always order ceasar salad.

3) I've been avoiding editing my latest WIP. I've gone through a (great) critique session with my fellow critters and I have some wizzbang ideas for improving it, but I've been balking at actually making those changes. I don't know if it feels too overwhelming, or I don't feel like diving back into the story, or if I feel like I need to constantly be producing new material (or all of the above), but it's really starting to tick me off. With myself.

4) I've been trying to cut back on my coffee consumption. My second bowl of coffee this morning tells me it's not going well.

5) I've read a lot of mediocre YA novels recently. I'm obvs not going to name names, but I was surprised in each instance at how underwhelmed I was with the writing and storytelling. I still consider the YA genre to be groundbreaking, and a lot of my current favorite authors are writing in YA, but some of the ARCs I've read recently are suggesting to me we're hitting a saturation point with the genre. In a way it's good, because it means YA has come into its own as a genre, but it also makes me think production is prized over quality for some publishers.

Do you have anything to confess today?